T Michael Mboya
Back in the early 1990s I wrote for a regional weekly based in Eldoret. By using affordable paper, printing technology and labour we put out a sensibly priced product that sought to meet the information needs of wananchi. In that sense, it was your typical Jua Kali practice. The seed capital for the weekly came from the proprietor. The man had returned from the US with enough dollars to live on and some to spare. He used some of the pocket change to set himself on a path to the achievement of a childhood dream to own a newspaper.
He assembled an enthusiastic, if untrained, workforce. I was one of the four initial writers/sub-editors. We were all fresh graduates of Moi University’s School of Social, Cultural and Development Studies. Consequently, even though the four of us had majored in Literature in English, we also knew a thing or two about economics, political science, geography, sociology, philosophy, and all that. Being young and idealistic, we felt compelled to play our part in the changing of the world.
The weekly did not attract significant advertisement. To survive we had to sell. The imperative translated into pressure to ‘give the people what they want.’ From feed-back directly given us, most of it unsolicited, we knew the desires of ‘the people.’ ‘The people’ wanted us to expose the rot in the government of the day – whether the rot was real or imagined. ‘The people’ also wanted juicy stories about big men and women sleeping around. There were always more than a few willing sources ready with ‘impeccable’ evidence.
We resisted the temptation to properly take up those practices that are today recognised as constituting the craft of the gutter press journalist. That restraint was mainly the doing of our first Editor-in-Chief. The kindly old man, who held a PhD in Literature from the US, held fast old-fashioned ideas about the responsibilities of the Press. Under his stewardship our paper delicately negotiated an identity that helped place it firmly in the category of the ‘free,’ ‘independent’ or ‘alternative’ – rather than ‘gutter’ – press.
That identity did not make good business sense. Since we could not compete against the mainstream Press for valuable advertisement revenue, we really had no choice but to appeal directly to raia. We needed their money. We did not make that appeal. After a thrilling year we were out of business.
But we had inspired others, who had also learnt from our ‘mistakes.’ Around the time these new players were setting up shop the political classes recognised a potential in these affordably produced papers. They took them over and started using them to their ‘dirty’ ends. Significantly, the political types peddled the same kind of stories that ‘the people’ wanted. The hijacking by the political classes consolidated the practices that defined the papers as ‘the gutter Press.’ The new papers had better runs than ours. In their turn, they inspired others.
The evidence on the streets today is that the gutter Press is alive and thriving. Expectedly, in this digital age the gutter Press is also online. The fact raises some interesting questions. Is it possible that ‘the people’ turn to the gutter Press because they deeply mistrust the news offered in mainstream media? Can it also be that the kinds of stories ‘the people’ want – and which characterise the powerful as philandering thieves – reassure them that those who lord it over them are not necessarily their betters?
Are other messages to be read into the preference? These are the kinds of questions that we should be asking instead of condemning the choices that a significant part of our population is making when they prefer the gutter Press to mainstream media.